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Private Intellectuals Sell Market Solutions

published 7 March 2013 updated 7 March 2013
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Public intellectuals have a long history of speaking out in the public interest about the issues of the day.  Today we have a new phenomenon -- private intellectuals -- like Harry Patrinos, Michael Barber, and James Tooley -- who speak out against the public interest to promote the private market.  Of course, they try to convince us that up is down and that market solutions in education are actually in the public interest.  But what they offer is a superficial argument based on ideology, illogic, and biased evidence as exemplified by Patrinos, who is Lead Education Economist at the World Bank, and wrote a recent blog extolling the virtues of  low-cost private schools.

Take his supply-side claim that “the private sector is stepping in to meet demand that the public sector is unable to meet.”  This is linked to the common demand-side claim that “even some of the poor are voting with their feet by sending their children to fee-paying private schools instead of free public schools.”  Supply meets demand in this happy tale of “expanded choice.”  To the contrary, this is a story of restricted choice.  Why is the public sector unable to meet demand?  Why are some of the poor sending their children to private schools?  Why?  The answer is because for the last 30 years we have so decimated public education and other public services that, in many places, public schools have huge class sizes, untrained teachers, few learning materials, and dilapidated facilities.  Nor are public schools free as local fees continue to be ubiquitous.  Parents have fewer choices than ever before, and, in this context, it is not at all surprising that some send their children to a private school.

But what is a rational private choice is far from the public interest.  These private intellectuals would have us give up on our public schools, forget about what has given many nations a common heritage, a functioning democracy, and a multicultural environment.  Of course, public schools have not been perfect at doing so, but turning education over to the private sector, as these private intellectuals advocate, is a great step backwards.  Even with public regulation, private schools will offer much less of a common experience.  And most importantly, they will further stratify the system into rich and poor.  Public schools are far too stratified as is.  But in every country that increases private education, that stratification is exacerbated.  “Low cost education for the poor” simply increases stratification among the poor.

Private intellectuals actually have a “solution” for this problem – as incredible as it is.  After spending much of their intellectual capital recounting how reliance on the private market can be very innovative, efficient, and, yes, even equitable, they then turn around and want to finance their private market publicly!  That is, they say let the government pay for people to go to private schools (although not pay enough to go to the wealthy private schools where they send their children).  Well, which is it?  They claim the inefficiency of government and the efficiency of the private sector.  Yet they hold out their hands for government subsidies.  And this is personal.  I have become convinced that most private intellectuals do not think they should be paying much in the way of tax dollars for public schooling, and, if they have to, they should get a rebate from the government to subsidize the tuition at their children's wealthy private school.

Decades of research overwhelmingly shows that private schools are generally no different nor any better than public schools.  This may appear counter-intuitive, but that is because, in most countries, private schools get more advantaged students than public students.  When research asks how would similar students do in the two environments, by controlling for background characteristics, public schools do as well as private schools (and as well as charter schools).  The reason Patrinos and his private intellectual pals find differently is because they only look at research done by themselves and their supporters.  The myopic and biased nature of World Bank research has been critiqued for decades for this very reason, and it continues without abatement.  I challenge them to fully release the data they cite and to fully describe the methods they use, and I predict that even their own data can be reasonably used to argue the opposite of their conclusions.

There is nothing innovative about cheap, low-cost education.  Studies have shown that private schools are no more innovative than public schools, perhaps even less so.  This blog by Patrinos was first published on the website of Pearson called Affordable Learning.  Pearson is specifically oriented to making money by selling education.  In whose interests are such solutions?    Cheap solutions are no way to move us forward to the improvements education needs.  Agencies like the World Bank have focused on private solutions over the long haul as a way of breaking the power of organized labor, that is, teacher unions.  Look, for example, at the writing of Shanta Devarajan, World Bank Chief Economist for Africa, and see the contempt that the Bank has for teachers and their organizations.  And this is directed much more broadly, as the Washington Consensus has long preached free markets and flexible labor, the latter a euphemism  for shutting down unions.

What we have is a bunch of true believer, free marketeers directing global education policy.  We need the Human Development Network of the Bank, where Patrinos works, to re-evaluate its Learning for All 2020 Strategy.  I, along with Joel Samoff of Stanford University and Nelly Stromquist of the University of Maryland, recently edited a book, with contributions of 14 first-rate scholars from around the world, on exactly that topic: The World Bank and Education: Critiques and Alternatives.  Patrinos and the other private intellectuals would do well to read it.   However, unfortunately, this is unlikely to happen.  The private intellectuals are only interested in research that supports their skewed view of the world.  We have tried several times to ask Elizabeth King, the Bank's Director of Education, for a discussion with Bank staff of some of the criticisms and alternatives raised in our book, but so far there has not even been a response.  The Bank is simply unwilling to consider different views.

The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect any official policies or positions of Education International.